|Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Starring: Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Rae Dawn Chong, Nameer El Kadi
Jean-Jacques Annaud, winner of no less than four César Awards, has brought narrative elegance and visual grace to several big name films, such as The Name of the Rose, Enemy at the Gates, and Seven Years in Tibet. But to the science fiction community he is better known for his Paleolithic adventure Quest for Fire (1981), which could be thematically placed alongside Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and not pale in comparison as drastically as most other sci-fi films—at least in the opening scene with the monkeys and the monolith. Now, Quest for Fire is finally enjoying its UK blu-ray release as well as a DVD re-issue from Second Sight Films.
Perhaps comparing Annaud to Kubrick is a bit reckless and based more on the amount of body hair the actors sported than an analysis of their cinematic greatness. But Annaud did share one admirable quality with Kubrick when it came down to choosing what films to make; he more often than not chose to adapt novels of significance. Quest for Fire is an adaptation of J.-H. Rosny’s novel of the same name. These brothers, Joseph Henri Honore Boex and Séraphin Justin François Boex, are considered by many to be among the contributing founders of modern literary science fiction.
The film takes place in Paleolithic Europe and follows three members of the Ulam tribe, a group of early Neanderthals, as they trek through the vast primitive landscape in search of life giving fire. The three Neanderthal Protagonists, portrayed by Everett McGuill, Ron Pearlman, and Nameer El-Kadi respectively, must search for a new source of fire after their encampment is raided by a pack of Sasquatch resembling Wagabu (Homo Erectus) and their source of fire is snuffed out. Along their journey they encounter several cannibalistic tribes of Wagabu and rescue a young Ivaka woman (Homo Sapien) played by Rae Dawn Chong who eventually gives them the power of knowledge.
This film is remarkable for several reasons. The first reason is that the whole story is conveyed without the use of any recognizable language. The Ulam and the Ivaka tribes were imbued with an imaginary primitive language created by the linguistic genius Anthony Burgess. But for viewers who are salivating at the thought of something equivalent to the poetic mix of Russian and English used in A Clockwork Orange (which was adapted by Kubrick; another connection between the two directors), the language is not a prominent narrative device, and is frankly hard to discern from the more commonly used gibbering and grunts employed by the actors.
The second reason that this film is amazing is the actors and their costume design. Every actor was completely physically reinvented. The Ulam were given the prominent gnarled brown and ape-like front teeth, the Wagabu looked like ferocious animals, and the Ivaka, who were simply covered with ash-based body paint, looked all the more unique for the humanness when compared to the rest. But the most remarkable thing about the costume design is that it in no way took away from the actors ability to portray complex emotions through facial expressions. The proverbial monkey mask did not in any way detract from this ability, which essentially was the vehicle for the more poignant narrative points, but in fact enhanced them.
This film conveys the brutality of survival, sex, and the first thorny paths of war, as well as the eternal human march towards the progress and enlightenment of the species. It even manages to infuse a rather genuine love story. All of this done on a non-verbal canvas of natural and historical beauty. Anyone who claims to be a fan of science fiction can not truly be among those ranks until they have seen this film.
Mastered in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this is an excellent presentation in every way. The image is sharp and clear, yet there are no detectable signs of artificial sharpening. Film grain is fully present, and the image overall retains a very pleasing filmic look. Colors and contrast are stable as well, with excellent image depth.
There are two separate audio tracks to choose from—a DTS HD Master Audio 5.0 track and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. As with the image quality, the audio is crystal clear, with very pleasing weight and depth across the full spectrum. This applies to both tracks.
Another remarkable aspect of Second Sight Films’ release of Quest For Fire is the wealth of extra features. These include a director’s commentary, where Jean-Jacques Annaud goes into great detail regarding the production; a rather engaging second ommentary with actors Ron Perlman, Rae Dawn Chong and Michael Gruskoff; a featurette entitled “The Making of Quest For Fire;” an interview with director Jean-Jacques Annaud; and 15 video galleries with Jean-Jacques Annaud commentary.
Quest for Fire is definitely a must see, and this release is top-notch quality. The Blu-ray release has brought back into the public eye a film that, while it was certainly not forgotten, definitely deserves to be lauded once again. Go out now and add this new release to your collection.
~By David Calbert